In the novel The A.B.C. Murders, Hercule Poirot asks an interesting question about a murder victim. There are two versions of it I’m aware of; one is the version that Agatha Christie wrote and the other the version in the ITV version starring David Suchet. I’m going to quote both versions because they’re interesting to compare.
First, the original:
“Pas ga. I wondered — if she were pretty?”
“As to that I’ve no information ,” said Inspector Crome with a hint of withdrawal. His manner said: “Really — these foreigners! All the same!”
A final look of amusement came into Poirot’s eyes.
“It does not seem to you important, that? Yet, pour une femme, it is of the first importance. Often it decides her destiny!”
Then, the ITV version (which replaced Inspector Crome with Chief Inspector Japp):
Poirot: Was she pretty?
Inspector Japp: There he goes again.
Poirot: That does not seem to be important? Mais pour un femme, it is of the first importance. It often decides her destiny.
Curiously, that’s rather different than how I remembered it, and much closer to the book. I remembered the exchange in the ITV version as something like:
Poirot: Was she pretty?
Japp: What does that matter?
Poirot: Poor girl, it mattered a great deal to her. It decided the whole course of her life.
It is interesting to me that I misremembered the ITV version so much, though to be fair to me I like my version better. Since you, dear reader, are not me, I presume that Agatha Christie’s version is the most interesting, here, and quite rightly so.
A great deal of detective fiction might be written by a male or female author, but occasionally one comes across a passage that seems like it could only have been written by one or the other. This is one such passage. I can only imagine a woman writing this. It’s not that only a woman would know it; we all know that physical beauty affects the lives of both sexes. Perhaps the best way I can describe what I mean is another example of this, from the Hamish MacBeth story Death of a Gossip.
I had mentioned to a female friend of mine that the story was very markedly written by a woman and she jokingly asked, “what, did it have no descriptions of women’s breasts?”
“Oh, no, it’s got plenty of descriptions of women’s breasts,” I replied. “Just never in admiration.”
In the exchange above, whether the woman was pretty was quite relevant to the detection. She was strangled with her own belt and it takes an unusual kind of man to charm the belt off of a pretty woman for the simple reason that she will be used to getting attention from men and so to charm her he will need to be above average. Or as Poirot puts it:
Betty Barnard was a flirt. She liked attention from a personable male. Therefore A.B.C., to persuade her to come out with him, must have had a certain amount of attraction — of le sex appeal! He must be able, as you English say, to ‘get off.’ He must be capable of the click!
Since it is directly relevant to the solving of the murder, any author might have thought of it or mentioned it. There is just something about how it was mentioned which seems distinctly feminine to me, even though it is put in the mouth of a male character. It’s hard to articulate what, since it’s subtle.
I think it’s the sympathy involved.
Males are tempted to treat beautiful women better than plain women and so it is a mark of virtue to a male to treat plain women as well as he treats beautiful women. A male recognizes the temptation otherwise, but (a virtuous one) regrets it as the effect of a fallen world. Since women are affected by this temptation but are not actually tempted by it, their primary concern is on its effects, not on avoiding it. When Poirot says that whether a woman is pretty many decide her whole destiny, it only speaks to concern with the effect.
However that goes, it is a relatively subtle point that Agatha Christie handled very deftly. Her writing tended toward the plain side, but her psychology and her plots were masterful. This may well be why she is one of the best selling authors of all time; the plain style of her writing makes it extremely accessible, while at the same time the brilliance of the plot is easy to see.